Lessons along the road: 5 career pointers for new graduates

I recently had the honour of speaking at Seneca College‘s “Make it Happen” event for about 400 of their marketing students. I was asked to talk for a few minutes about my own career path and achievements, but there are few things I’d like to hear less than someone like me droning on about my accomplishments. Instead, I shared my story through five lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

Lesson #1: Have a vision

I saw a video recently that resonated with me. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about the importance of having a vision for what you wanted to do. For him it was moving to the US and being a movie star. For me, it’s evolved over time… but it really started with social media.

I started my career in the early heyday of the Internet. I was lucky that my first internship – back in 2000 – turned into an opportunity to take on the role of webmaster for a division of Hitachi in Europe, and I parlayed that into a second internship doing web development for a bank in the UK. I loved the idea that companies could use these new online technologies to anticipate and serve the needs of their customers. I remember writing a report in university on the potential for an early eCommerce retailer to better optimize their journey planning to anticipate customers’ purchasing behavior based on their past activities, and serve products to them accordingly. Essentially the type of thing that, a few years later, Amazon started doing through its product recommendations.

When social media first emerged, I found it absolutely compelling. Its roots back in the mid-2000s – and the early business use-cases – centred around building communities and solving problems. I loved the idea that this two-way technology could help to narrow the gap between companies and their customers.

That became my passion. I didn’t want to just ‘do’ this stuff, I wanted to be amongst the best in the world at it. For years I’d work a full day in the office, then go home, read up on trends for a couple of hours and then write for a couple more. I’d write about whatever was going on with social media – new tools, new platforms, new developments… and as I did, people started to listen. I got to the point where I had thousands of readers of my site, where I was on a first-name basis with the thought leaders of this space, and was going toe-to-toe with them online, and where I was flying around North America talking about this stuff.

That vision drove me. As social media evolved, I found that my passion for that specific thing waned, but I still get excited about using data and technology to connect faceless corporations with the people who care about them, and in doing so make them more relevant. For the last few years, I’ve focused on evolving my team to focus on this challenge and find creative solutions for it.

Find the vision that motivates you, and work relentlessly at achieving it.

Lesson #2: You need to create your own luck

Marketing Career Lesson 2 - You need to create your own luck

I’ve used this quote so many times over the years that I’ve lost count:

“I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”

This is often attributed to Mark Twain or Thomas Jefferson, but as far as I can tell it actually came from an author named Coleman Cox, who wrote this in 1922. Nearly a hundred years later, it has been the foundation of my career.

I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I’ll get to that more later. What success I’ve had has come from hard work, from keeping my eye on the horizon and from recognizing opportunities as they arise.

I moved to Canada in 2003 and soon after landed a temp gig with the Government of Ontario. That was supposed to just be for a few weeks, but a week or so in, something went sideways on a project. I was still new, but – as I’ve heard it recounted to me – while everyone else was panicking, I figured out what needed to be done and just started doing it. As a result I was recommended for a contract in another department, and eventually I landed a permanent gig. I worked my way up in the government for nearly five years.

I talked about social media earlier. When I got into that space, there were no college or university courses on it. Twitter was new. Facebook was an emerging thing. Foursquare didn’t exist yet. Blogs were still emerging. When social media was getting big, I was still working for the government, but I thought there was really interesting potential there, and I grabbed onto it. No-one handed me a career in the social media space; in fact, there weren’t that many careers in it at that point. Few companies were throwing serious money at it at that time, but I could see there was something there. I spent hours – every day – working to learn about it and build some kind of profile for myself.

Eventually it paid off and I landed a job focused on social media at an agency named Thornley Fallis Communications. The work didn’t end there; it began there. I worked my ass off ensuring everything was as good as I knew it could be. Over my next two years there, we won clients including Rogers, Atlantic Lottery Corp, Allstate and more. Terry Fallis – whose name is on that agency’s door – remains a good friend and mentor to me, and I look back fondly at my time there and with gratitude at the opportunities that Terry and his business partner Joe Thornley provided to me.

Now, I take Coleman Cox’s comments with a pinch of salt. If you’re working 70 hours every week – and I’ve been there – it’s not good for you, your family or your colleagues. Don’t do that. But when you ARE working, be present. Be attentive, and focus. Your career will benefit from it. Leave your title at the door, and come to every meeting with a learning attitude. Ask smart questions. Raise your hand for opportunities, and earn a place at the table. When opportunities are offered to you, take them. Lean in.

Lesson #3: Life is like a box of chocolates

Marketing Career Lesson 3 - Life is like a box of chocolates

I’ve spent the last two lessons focused on the early days of my career. This lesson spans from day one, to this day.

Your career isn’t likely to be a straight line. I went through University sure that I would be a management consultant – which was ‘the thing to do’ back then.

Then I discovered the internet, and that moment started me in a new career trajectory which brought me to Canada and to a gig in communications, and that turned into five fulfilling years learning about social media.

Enter Edelman. I joined the agency  in 2010 and that’s when things got really interesting. My eight years – so far – at Edelman have been a roller-coaster of change. Three months into my stint leading the Digital team in our Toronto office, I was asked to join an account full-time to help address some instability on that file. That turned into another role, and then another, and eventually I found myself leading a global project on a high-profile tech product launch, with a team of 140 people. I didn’t ‘sign up’ for any of that when I joined Edelman, but when the opportunity arose I took it.

The moral of the story is that you never know what is going to come your way. Don’t shy away from unexpected opportunities… and don’t shy away from challenges, either.

My current boss – who I have worked with for nearly eight years – talks about there being two types of people – those who jump off the train when it starts to veer out of control, and those who jump onto it. I’ve made my career on the back of moments when I’ve jumped onto that train. When things go south, stop, think through what needs to be done and get to it.

You’ll be amazed at the opportunities that emerge when you throw yourself into being part of the solution, rather than dodging the problem.

Lesson #4: Follow leaders, not jobs

Marketing Career Lesson 4 - Follow leaders, not jobs

Over the course of your career, you will have a lot of career choices to make and – if you’re good – opportunities presented to you. Some may have big dollars or big titles attached to them. Some may be more high-profile.

I offer one piece of advice here: follow the leader. I have yet to regret following a strong leader, versus a shiny new role or a big paycheck.

I talked just now about my time at Edelman. When the big global tech client left us in 2013, I had a number of potential paths in front of me.

One put me onto another global client, in a more senior role, over in England. The person I would have reported to had a reputation as being difficult, but the role was another step up the career ladder.

Another potential role had me working full-time on a video gaming client – as a big nerd, this was pretty attractive. However, on meeting the account lead, I could tell we wouldn’t click.

The final opportunity involved staying in Canada, and leading a part of the regional team. It was relatively close to what I’d been doing before the big account, and involved less ‘adventure’, but it had one clear leg up over the others: a person I’d worked with for several years and who I respected greatly, who had recently taken on the role to which I would report, and which I now hold – that of National Practice Lead.

In the end, I chose to remain in Canada and instead follow a leader. Five years later, we’re still working together and I haven’t regretted that choice once.

Lots of things may get your attention, but beyond the initial attraction, it’s pretty hard to get out of bed every day knowing that you aren’t going to enjoy the day. If you like and respect your leader, though, everything is different. I won’t pretend every day is full of roses, but I look forward to coming to work more often than I don’t.

Lesson #5: Never stop being a sponge

Marketing Career Lesson 5 - Never stop being a sponge

I mentioned earlier that I am rarely the smartest person in the room. A lot of people scoff when I say that (those who know me would likely agree…), but I genuinely believe that it’s true.

Michael Dell once said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people… or find a different room.”

When you’re first starting out, my best advice to you is to be a sponge. Listen more than you talk, and when you do talk, ask smart questions.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a point of view or add value – you absolutely can. However, far too many people see graduation as the end of their learning, not the latest step on a long path of growth.

I got my first ‘adult job’ 18 years ago. Since then I’ve risen to the top digital role in Canada, at the world’s largest communications marketing firm, with a team of more than 60 people. I’m still not done learning.

I see my most important job nowadays as being that of continuously surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me. Doing so means I’m always learning, and maintaining a constant feeling of being “new”.

To this end, I have three final pointers for you:

  1. Constantly search out alternative points of view. Don’t just seek to validate your thinking.
  2. Hire people that are smarter than you to keep you on your toes, even if they make you uncomfortable.
  3. Once you’re the boss, ask your team what they think is the right approach before you tell them what you think it is.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with advice I consistently hear my friend and manager Tristan Roy give to teams at Edelman:

Work hard and be nice to people.

What lessons would you add to this list?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.